A LOCAL children’s charity has seen a 160 per cent increase in the number of referrals to its Family Service Hubs in the Fermanagh and Omagh area.

From December 2019 up until the end of the financial year in 2023, Action for Children says there has been an upward curve as the effects of poverty in this area become more prevalent.

Paul Kellagher, children service manager for the charity, also revealed that a crisis fund set up by the charity spent almost £100,000 in the Western Health and Social Care Trust area out of the total of £208,000 spent in Northern Ireland.

“I’ve been 25 years in social work and I have never seen the level of financial challenge and poverty facing families in my career that I’m seeing now,” said Paul.

“And I don’t say that lightly, because I grew up in the Thatcher era, and I do remember that kind of deep poverty back then.”

Paul explained there were multiple factors impacting families in terms of poverty and if nothing is done to address these, then the consequences could be seen for generations.

“We almost semi-carelessly think about things like ‘fuel poverty’, or ‘food poverty’, but actually, it’s all just poverty.

“And all of those things are just symptoms of part of a bigger problem, but they also have manifested themselves and can have practical outworkings,” he said.

The crisis fund run by Action for Children gives £250 to families to help them in a time of need.

And while Paul acknowledged it is not a long-term sustainable solution, it does bridge a gap in a time of need, with the vast majority of applications for food and energy costs.

Action for Children is seeing several factors impact children’s lives, such as a parent becoming unwell and being unfit for work, and the issue of Universal Credit and the two-child limit.

Paul pointed out how the Scottish Government has moved around this by introducing a payment for all children under 16, and it is not capped.

“That’s a good example of how devolved government can actually do something to fight poverty,” said Paul, who said there has been a move away from the idea of social welfare and protecting the most vulnerable in society.

“We are seeing, in some cases, parents choosing not to eat and spending their food budget on feeding their children, to the point of [their own] ill health, to the point of medical ill health, because of literally hunger.

“We are seeing parents making decisions about whether to spend money on food or heating.

“We almost lock families into poverty, by virtue of the fact that, well, if you can’t afford good food, and you can’t afford heat, your ability to learn and do well academically will impact your future ability to lift yourself out of poverty.”

As well as food and energy pressures, rent and mortgage pressures are also coming to the fore, so much so that Paul warns there could be an increase in homelessness because people’s budgets are at the very edge.

This is putting stress on parental mental health, and there is a knock-on effect for children.

“The difficulty with this stuff is we are locking in problems now that we’re not going to solve next week.

“Problems are going to get locked into people’s life patterns for years to come if we’re not careful.

“If we don’t address this, if you create an environment where not only do you harm adults, the parents that you harm – I’m using the word ‘harm’ very deliberately, because these are deliberate actions; these are avoidable harms, not accidental outcomes – if you then harm a whole generation of children, we’re gonna be paying for that for a generation or two to come.

“We know if you want to support children and families, then the right time to intervene is as early as possible, rather than allow problems to rise and manifest, and become really embedded,” he added.

Looking back on the 160 per cent increase in the need for some services Action for Children provides, Paul said that this is not a “sustainable bell curve” on the same resources.

“The long-term impact of poverty and the lack of political decision-making will have very, very profound effects on our generation of children. That’s the reality.”